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UFC Champ, Holly Holm with IncredAble Adaptive MMA athlete, Autumn Weinberger.
-IncredAble Adaptive MMA
Mike and Heather Winkeljohn began creating the IncredAble Adaptive Mixed Martial Arts(MMA) program in 2017. Both Mike and Heather have witnessed the amazing and therapeutic results that mixed martial arts have brought to kids and young adults, who struggle with special needs. It is also well known in the industry, that martial arts have saved many young adults from choosing the wrong path in life. Mike Winkeljohn himself was one of those troubled youth.
Over time, our students in the IncredAble Adaptive MMA program, have demonstrated increased confidence, motivation and physical fitness. They are no longer excluded from learning one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Many of the professional athletes at the Jackson Wink Academy were once troubled kids themselves. The Winklejohns have seen the profound influence of martial arts, in the life of their own daughter, Autumn.
Autumn suffered a severe stroke at birth resulting in a brain injury and challenges with the right side of her body, as well as Epilepsy. While she participated in many therapies over the years (OT, PT, Speech and more), the most beneficial and fun addition to her life, was learning the sport of MMA. Autumn begun learning MMA at the age of 6 years old and continues to grapple, kick box and wrestle. She has gained mental strength, confidence, physical strength, as well as improved range of motion on the affected side of her body. It wasn’t always an easy path for her to learn MMA, and there were frustrations along the way. She was sometimes thrust into a bustling, class of peers who didn’t understand her challenges. This had its pros and cons. At times, in a regular MMA class, Autumn would put pressure on herself to keep up with her peers. This sometimes served to push her but it also fueled her insecurities if she failed to keep up.
Now at the age of 18, Autumn is an assistant Coach at Wink’s Gym, our smaller family gym as well as an adaptive MMA coach. An adaptive martial arts program can close a gap, like Autumn experienced, and eliminate the pressure that a disabled student may feel. The adaptive student is not placed into a group of non-disabled peers until he or she is ready, and if he or she is ready. Some may only work together with other disabled peers and some only continue to receive one on one lessons with a coach. It is all based on the comfort level of the student and parents.
We have realized the far reaching benefits of MMA, for our daughter and others. With our own daughter Wink’s Gym over the years became her second home. Autumn was motivated to go to class and learn. She began to identify herself as a martial artist and eventually gained the confidence to compete in a grappling tournament. She placed last in the tournament, but overcame her insecurity and attempted it. Autumn also learned the value of setting and reaching a goal. In addition, we had a few other students with special needs who wanted to learn but in a comfortable environment. We began to create an atmosphere where the disabled or at risk could learn the sport and feel accepted in our smaller gym. Eventually, we came to the realization that a program in our professional gym, at the world renowned, Jackson Wink Academy could create an even bigger motivation for both the students as well as the athletes. This is why the IncredAble Adaptive MMA program was formed.
We have since learned that there is a whole group of potential students with special needs or at risk youth, who could and benefit immensely from the sport. Our goal is to serve the children who are often cast aside or unable to participate in a standard martial arts class environment. Our students build a rapport with their coach and begin to find their own internal and physical strengths. The benefits are huge if MMA is learned under the right circumstances and in the right place.
To create the optimal circumstances for program implementation, the IncredAble Adaptive MMA program, partners pro athletes and students with special needs or at risk kids, allowing them to benefit and learn from each other. The atmosphere must be one where coaches utilize patience and acceptance of the students’ struggles. In many ways this creates a sense of humility and empathy in the athletes. They see students who are not necessarily gifted in physical ability like they are and may see some at risk students who they can identify with and mentor. Some of the coaches either have a family member with special needs or were once at risk. Most of our coaches were at one time, incarcerated, drug users, homeless or depressed, but they see what a gift that the acquisition and teaching of martial arts has been for them.
Logistically, for some students, the gym needs to be a bit more quiet and less active and noisy. In our own program, we use the gym for the adaptive program, during times when there are not large classes going on. This helps create the feeling of a safe and comfortable environment in which the students can learn. At times, high profile fighters who are Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champions, like Holly Holm, Jon Jones or Diego Sanchez, may get involved in the coaching, further adding to the motivation of the student.
Since its introduction in March, the program now serves 40 students. Based on a parent or student survey which was recently administered, 100% of parents surveyed reported an increase in confidence of their child. Over half reported improvements in discipline or behavior, sense of belonging, physical fitness, better manners or respect and acquisition of martial arts skills. It is our hope to continue to seek support through fundraising and grants so that we can reach more students and grow this amazing program, which we are blessed to be a part of.
Provided are links to stories about the program.
※ This writing does not reflect the opinon of UNESCO ICM and UNESCO ICM is not directly linked to this writing.